OVERALL AIM OF THE NETWORK: ‘Polycentric urban regions’ (PURs) have become a key concept in regional studies, both as an analytical framework to capture empirical realities as well as part of normative visions and goals in regional development policies. In its most basic guise, the PUR notion applies to regions characterised by the presence of multiple, more-or-less proximate urban centres without pronounced hierarchical differentiation. The starting point of the research network is the proposition that although the rapid growth in the size and scope of PUR research and policy-making has clearly invigorated this research field, it is in practice built on surprisingly limited comprehensive evidence and hampered by the lack of coherence. Indeed, the quasi-universal identification of PURs and wide-ranging discussions about their putative relevance hide the presence of significant analytical and empirical differences across the literature. Different methods, data, analytical frameworks, and interpretations are used as the basis for an increasingly prevalent and diverse literature, which thus risks missing direction and face diminishing returns on research time investment. In addition, the ambiguity surrounding PURs in planning circles has been instrumental in perpetuating this lack of clarity: as every actor involved in a political or planning process can attribute its own interpretation to it, it becomes easier to (seemingly) establish consensus. Although such instrumentalism might be practical in the politically charged situations associated with regional planning, this situation is detrimental for scientific communication and progress and subsequent use in policy circles.
The lack of a comprehensive framework to discuss the identification, theorisation and analysis of PURs has led to a regional studies literature that is wide-ranging and blossoming, but also sometimes assumption-rich, disjointed and lacking analytical depth. This lack of clarity and coherence in the sizable scientific and policy interest in PURs warrants the development of a more concerted regional studies research agenda, and the overall aim of this research network is to facilitate this agenda in order to expand our understanding of the prevalence, significance, future development and policy implications of PURs. The research network strives to become the chief organisational framework for cutting-edge multidisciplinary PUR research by bringing together the major research groups and the key themes/approaches and the analytical interconnections they represent.
Against this backdrop, the proposed RSA research network on PURs has four more concrete objectives. First, the network will bring together established researchers of PURs to critically evaluate the state of the field, and to articulate an agenda for the next wave of PUR studies. Essential to this goal will be the network’s role in the formation of new collaborative research teams designed to jump-start this new research agenda. Second, as PURs have often been viewed through the lens of normative local and regional development policies, the network will develop perspectives on critically evaluating, exchanging and comparing policy impacts. Third, as PUR research has been one of the vanguards in developing new data and methods for analysing city-regional processes, the network will offer an opportunity for the exchange and sharing of new approaches and best practices in regional studies in general and PUR research in particular. And fourth and finally, the research network will develop a purposeful strategy to serve as a conduit for international collaboration linking senior researchers with early-career scholars working in this field.
EVENT TITLE: Network Approaches to Polycentric Urban Development
AIM OF THE EVENT: After a series of special sessions during the RSA conference in 2018 (Lugano) and two workshops earlier in 2019 focusing on conceptualising, identifying and governing PURs (Delft and Loughborough), this was the third specific event in the context of the research network. Its general aim was to explore the intersections between two related bodies of literature: (1) PURs and (2) network approaches to the analysis of regional urban systems. A key rationale for the RSA Research Network is that PURs have become a key concept in regional studies, both as an analytical framework to capture empirical realities as well as part of normative visions in regional development policies. In this context, network metaphors and analytical frameworks have increasingly been employed to study regional urban systems or city-regional development, and these are often found in or captured through the lens of PURs. To paraphrase Brian Berry, metropolitan regions are increasingly seen as ‘networks within networks of cities’.
Against this background, for this event we solicited submissions – both directly and via open calls for papers – that invoke network thinking, models, and techniques to study city-regional development in general, and network approaches to polycentric urban development in particular. The workshop thus centred on:
- Conceptualizing city-regional development through urban networks
- Polycentric urban development at multiple spatial scales
- Polycentric urban development through different social, economic, and political networks
- Emerging urban network data and analytics
- City networks and urban performance
- Integration/comparison of qualitative and quantitative network approaches
- Planning and coordinating urban networks within city-regions
DATE AND PLACE OF EVENT: Guangzhou (China, 14-15 December 2019)
ORGANISER(S)’ NAME(S): Xingjian Liu (in collaboration with a local organizer (Miaoxi Zhao) and the other research network organizers (Evert Meijers, Ben Derudder, John Harrison & Michael Hoyler)
Given that we aimed for intensive discussions during the workshop, we decided early on that in principle only speakers could attend. Nonetheless, in return for supporting funding provided by the local organisers (South China University of Technology), about 20 graduate students were also allowed to attend without formally presenting. In the below overview, we distinguish between speakers and participants (the graduate students and some of the co-authors of presentations). In addition to 3 of the research network organizers being present and contributing as panellists and/or moderators throughout the workshop (Evert Meijers, Ben Derudder, Xingjian Liu), there were 4 keynote speakers, 16 speakers, and 3 panellists and moderators. Note that the below focus on institutional affiliation hides a fair amount of geographical diversity among speakers and participants, because a fair share of them have been quite mobile throughout their academic careers with many of them working in other countries than shown on their passports.
Presentations were grouped into four thematic sessions, four keynotes speeches, and a concluding roundtable panel.
The four thematic sessions were:
- Spatial and Temporal Evolution of City-regions from a Network Perspective
- Performance of Polycentric Urban Regions from a Network Perspective
- Network Data and Measurement Issues
- Networks of Transport Infrastructure and City-regional Development
The four keynote speeches were:
- Polycentric Urban Development, 1999-2019: An international overview (Cliff Hague)
- Urban Networks: Time for Some Questions (Richard Shearmur)
- From Cities to Super Mega City Regions in China (Anthony Yeh)
- Network and Territory: Key Issues for Transition of Economic Geography (Degao Zheng)
A concluding roundtable panel focused on ‘Network approaches to polycentric urban development’
Each of these sessions lasted approximately two hours and had 3 or 4 presentations. Each keynote speech and the concluding roundtable panel lasted approximately 1 hour. With the exception of an opening session (introducing the research network’s overall rationale and the workshop itself), there was no specific built-up to the sessions.
The major purpose of the Guangzhou workshop was to better understand the (possible) intersections between PURs and network approaches to the analysis of regional urban systems. The workshop was, to the best of our knowledge, the largest and most coherent exchange and sharing to date of conceptual approaches, methods and best practices in the use of network approaches to the study of PURs. The workshop focused on the fundamentals of this research agenda – i.e. how can network approaches help and what are their limitations? – and future events will draw on this to tease out some more specific and emerging research agendas that explicitly built on these fundamentals. We had planned a roundtable discussion at this year’s RSA conference in Ljubljana, which we are planning on rescheduling to next year’s conference. COVID willing, there will be a final event tying into the infrastructure and transport dimensions of PURs at next year’s AAG in Seattle (April 2021). Holding this event in North America would be appropriate for two related reasons: previous events did not attract a large number of researchers from that region in spite of the relevance of PURs in the North American context, while much of the North American interest in this literature specifically deals with infrastructure and transport because of its central importance in ongoing discussions on megaregions. Having a fourth and final event in North America on the topic of the infrastructure and transport dimensions of PURs would also ensure that all main topics and regions have been covered by the PUR research network. Finally, it will provide a platform to promote the first two special issues – in Regional Studies and Territory, Politics, Governance – one of which will be complete and the other in the final stages of completion.
Ben Derudder is a professor of urban geography at Ghent University and a visiting professor at Shanghai Normal University. His research focuses on urban systems at the global (world city networks) and regional (polycentric urban regions) scale. He is one of the Editors of Regional Studies.
Miaoxi Zhao is Professor & Associate Dean, Department of Urban Planning, Architecture School at South China University of Technology. His research is in the domain of urban planning and urban geography, with a particular focus on understanding urban China in the context of a globalizing network society. He received the prestigious Young Researcher Award from Urban Planning Society of China (UPSC) in 2019.
Xingjian Liu is with the Department of Urban Planning and Design at The University of Hong Kong. He has worked on issues related to urban networks, city-regions, and urban China.
Evert Meijers is associate professor in Urban and Regional Studies at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology. He also acts as Research Director of its Department of Urbanism, lectures at the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions and is a Trustee of the Urban Studies Foundation. His research is focused on understanding the spatial structure and organisation of territories, to associate that structure and organisation with performance in terms of environmental sustainability, social well-being and economic competitiveness and to translate that knowledge in spatial development strategies for cities and regions.